Chk chk… Boom!
Y’hear that? It’s the sound of a killer. A killer ingredient that you’ve probably never heard of.
This is a vegetable dish. It’s NOT vegetarian because of a simple fact: you’re eating rotten shrimp. Now, now, now, calm yourself. I didn’t leave shrimp out all day in the heat to ferment… Well… Technically, someone else did that for me. Then pounded it and formed it into a block.
Allow me to introduce you to Belacan. First of all, I pronounce it blah-chuhn. I don’t know if that’s how it’s supposed to be pronounced (I just mimic what my parents say) but, this is the best we’ve got right now, so you don’t really have a choice but to believe me.
Belacan is the basis of many of Malaysians most famous dishes. Laksa, stir fried green beans, Kang kung, any of those dishes that have that deep earthy flavor that you can’t quite put your finger on… It’s probably Belacan.
Belacan is similar in theory to the better-known fish sauce. They’re both basically fermented seafood products. Where they differ is that Belacan is dried and fermented shrimp that are then ground into a pasta, allowed to sun dry and then packed into a block. To release the flavor of Belacan, it is toasted and then generally fried in a little bit of oil.
The waft of fragrance could be called funky. To me it’s endearingly complex. There’s a smokiness and an earthiness that is hard to replicate. It smells faintly of the sea and invokes that curry house aroma that clings to your clothing.
It’s my secret weapon. Malaysian food is still the much-lesser known cousin to other Asian or even South East Asian cuisines. Cantonese, Thai and Japanese foods are much more widely known and familiar to western palates. Malaysian food borrows from neighboring Asian traditions with heavy Thai, Chinese and Indian components. While you can see these influences when you look closely, the sum of all the parts is something quite unique.
It’s this uniqueness that sometimes makes Malaysian ingredients hard to find. In Manhattan, for instance, it took me months to find the small corner of Hong Kong Supermarket (157 Hester, for those of you playing at home) that housed the laksa and curry pastes for lazy, quick flavorful meals. It took me another couple of months to find the Belacan.
Why not just ask, you say? I belong to a subset of people I like to call Wasians. White-asians. My grasp on any language other than English is slim. Conversely, the staff at Hong Kong Supermarket’s grasp on English is also a clutch at proverbial straws. Communicating what Belacan is was just not a task that ever seemed feasible. Plus, one of my favorite past times is (to the chagrin of my husband) roaming the aisles of local markets and supermarkets. When I get to a new country or city, I love to see how the locals shop for food. It’s a strange hobby, but if you love me, you’ll accept it.
Now, I don’t think this dish actually exists. I have a feeling that I amalgamated the ideas of a few different dishes together and the reason is simple: balance. Luscious, silky eggplant charged up with spicy chili and anchored with earthy Belacan. It just works.
Eggplants are a bitch. Let’s be honest here. Have you ever eaten slightly undercooked eggplant? It impressively maintains the texture and flavor of the dish sponge that you threw out last month. Seconds seem to matter when cooking the little mongrels. The silky texture comes to be in almost a miraculous and instantaneous conception. Honestly, I’d much rather overcook my eggplant than undercook it.
Generally when you order eggplant from any Cantonese or Malaysian establishment (or Italian or any Mediterranean one, for that matter) your eggplant comes out silky smooth and oh, so unctuous but laden and dripping with oil. As it’s spongy nature dictates, eggplants will suck up any and all oil that you add to a pan. Great for flavor, not great for waistlines.
If I’ve just made it super awkward and you’re really worried about it now, one safeguard trick that I have up my sleeve is this bad boy:
So, take this trick: salt your eggplant pieces and let them sit for 20 minutes until moisture starts to seep. Spray lightly with oil, spread in one layer on a parchment-lined baking tray and cook for 20 mins on around 350F/175C. This parcooks and seasons the nightshade and makes it easier to ensure that they will be cooked through. It also means you don’t have to lather them up with oil to ensure a good cook.
Eggplant contains a bunch of fiber, Vitamin B1 and copper. Why the hell do we need to eat copper? It’s actually essential to our bodies and supports our brain and immune system functions and shores up bone mineral density. You don’t need a lot of it, which is why you don’t really hear of people with copper deficiencies, just always use my rule of thumb: eat the rainbow. The more varied your intake of fruit and vegetables, the larger the range of trace minerals you’ll take in.
Now, eggplant isn’t the biggest source of protein so, what you pair it with really matters. Go for quinoa over rice as it has one of the highest protein contents of any grain/seed.
Lord, I’m full of hot air. Charge! Onward toward the recipe!
Chili Garlic Eggplant
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 10 minutes
Makes 4 servings
- 1 large eggplant, cut into cubes
- 1 large onion, cut into wedges
- 2 large handfuls of green beans, ends trimmed
- 3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
- 1 inch of ginger, finely chopped
- 1/2 bunch of cilantro, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon of Sambal Oelek, your favorite Asian hot sauce or fresh chili
- 2 green/spring onions, cut into inch long pieces
- 3 splats of fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon of Belacan
- 8oz of tomato paste
- 1 tablespoon of olive oil
Method (and a touch of madness)
- Optional: Create a boat with aluminum foil and place the Belacan in. Using tongs over open flame, quickly toast the Belacan for 10 seconds until the edges brown up.
- Heat wok. Once smoking, add oil, followed by Sambal Oelek, garlic, ginger and Belacan. Stir.
- Add eggplant and keep moving everything. After 2 minutes of tossing, add onion, green onion and green beans. Add fish sauce.
- Fry for 1 minute, then add 3 tablespoons of water and quickly cover to steam the vegetables.
- Keep checking and stirring every 20 seconds or so until all the eggplant has turned translucent.
- To finish, add in tomato paste and cilantro, stir and turn off the heat.
- To serve, shovel onto a plate and garnish with a little more cilantro and green onion. Serve with bowls of quinoa.
Guide for the ‘arians:
- Flexitarian – good
- Pescetarian – good
- Vegetarian – change fish sauce and Belacan to kombu powder, miso or something equally earthy and sea-like.
- Omnivore – good
- Vegan – change fish sauce and Belacan to kombu powder, miso or something equally earthy and sea-like.
- Gluten free – good
- Lactose free – good